What is truly valuable? As a species humanity seems constantly preoccupied with this question, starting from our individual perspective, and building up to our families, our parish, our community, all the way up to the entire world view. Whole industries have grown around this idea of value, from the advertising industry that tries to convince you of the value of what they’re selling, to insurance companies that can set a monetary value on everything, including your own life. Our faith tradition also has some thoughts on this question, as addressed by our readings this week:
Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
Our first reading is from the Book of Wisdom. You may recall that we had a passage from this book three weeks ago, but by way of reminder, the Book of Wisdom comes to us from the Jewish community in Alexandria some 50 years before Christ. Typical of wisdom literature in the Bible, it’s meant to be an aid to teaching the faith and what is important in life. In this week’s passage, typical of this genre, wisdom is anthropomorphized as a beautiful woman, with her beauty and splendor far beyond that of any gem, or gold, or silver. The passage means to challenge our perceptions of what is valuable. Those things we normally consider to be of value are worthless next to wisdom itself. Our Psalm has us praying “that we may gain wisdom of heart.” But that prayer is also a recognition of our sinfulness, and a cry for mercy and recognition as we turn our work toward the Lord so that we can realize his blessings.
Playing on the idea of wisdom being more valuable than gold, our Gospel takes us to the story of the rich man asking Jesus what it takes to inherit eternal life. Not only is the man dejected by Jesus’ answer, but the Apostles are confused, and seek not once, but twice for clarification. As is typical for most scripture, however, we need to scratch below the surface to find the truth lying underneath.
On the surface Jesus seems to be chastising the rich, as if wealth itself were the sin, a theme you may remember from our passage from James a couple weeks ago. In that reading the sin was not wealth itself, so much as it was the manner in which that wealth was obtained (Behold the wages you withheld from the workers…). Similarly in today’s gospel, the sin isn’t wealth, but rather the inability to make a sacrifice by doing more.
By all rights the man in our story was an upstanding citizen, living by the commandments. While that is commendable, however, it’s not enough. Jesus is teaching us not to be satisfied with the status quo… but instead we need to continue to grow. Once we’ve accomplished one thing, we need to build on that experience and accomplish something else. Jesus is essentially saying “You did something good. Great! What are you going to do tomorrow?”
One of God’s gifts to us is our ability to learn and grow… to evolve (not a dirty word to Catholic Christians). Our lives are not static, and neither is our relationship with God. What we accomplished yesterday was good for yesterday. It gives us the strength, confidence, and wisdom to accomplish something today. But the good we do today means little if we don’t do something with it tomorrow… and the next day, and the day after that. There is always more we can do, and there is always more out there that needs to get done. Which takes us to the larger lesson of our Gospel, that we need to be willing to make sacrifices in order to accomplish what is needed.
Love, by its very nature, involves a sacrifice. Ask yourself… if you love someone, would you do anything for them? That, by definition, is a sacrifice on your part. A new parent sacrificing their sleep and freedom to care for their baby. The ultimate expression of this idea is Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for our salvation. Love is an “all-in” game. But as Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples, that sacrifice not only leads to rewards in this life, but in the next. A life lived in service to the Gospel is a ticket to eternal life.
How do we know this is true? The answer lies in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Here we are taught that “the word of God is living and effective,” and that Word can be found in our scriptures. The Bible is often referred to as “the Word of God.” While this “Word” may be coming to us through its flawed human authors, the message is consistent and clear… we must love God, and love one another. We are also reminded, however, that God knows our hearts. Is our love genuine? Is what we do in the service of our neighbor done in the true spirit of service or are we looking to get something out of it?
Do readings like this make you feel uncomfortable? They should. I know they make me feel uncomfortable. But that’s exactly the point. We shouldn’t ever feel comfortable. We should never be complacent about our faith or our relationship with God. Like any relationship, we should never take it for granted. Don’t get me wrong… you don’t need to “earn” God’s love. Like a parent, he gives that love unconditionally. But a relationship is also reciprocal… action and reaction. God has certain expectations for us, as scripture has taught us. But one kind act doesn’t mean you’re finished. Rather, our faith is a continual growth process, building on past successes, learning from past failures, in order to become the best version of ourselves. Are we prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish this goal?